DURING TIMES of tragedy heroes rise. In the midst of chaos there are certain individuals who possess the right blend of altruism and inspiration to keep doing what is right when everything around them falls apart.
Twenty years ago, Rwanda experienced the worst type of civil collapse; genocide. In just 100 days, up to one million people were killed because of their so-called ethnic identities. During this period numerous heroes would rise. Contrary to popular belief, Paul Rusesabagina was not one of them.
Yesterday, the Madame Walker Theatre Centre in Indianapolis, Indiana, USA, opened its 2014-15 season with a speech by Rusesabagina where he discussed his life 10 years after the film, Hotel Rwanda and 20 years after the horrific but, according to Rusesabagina, heroic events.
These “heroic events” have made Rusesabagina a ‘star.’ As the story goes, in 1994, Paul Rusesabagina was the Rwandan hotel manager at the exclusive Hotel des Mille Collines in Kigali. He is said to have heroically sheltered Hutu and Tutsi refugees during the Genocide against the Tutsi, and in the process saved over 1,200 people’s lives.
In 1996, Rusesabagina left Rwanda. Since that time he has toured and given lectures about Rwanda and the Genocide across several American states and cities but also in Europe. He is the author of, An Ordinary Man: An Autobiography and the subject of the 2004 film Hotel Rwanda.
The Walker Theatre is honouring Rusesabagina this week by having him speak, sell and sign his autobiography as part of their “Journey to Freedom” season.
Rusesabagina’s story is one of great sacrifice and heroism in a time of terrible tragedy. The accolades that have followed are commensurate with that story. The problem is that the story is just that: a story.
The truth of what happened during those 100 days at the Hotel des Mille Collines is not one of altruism or heroism, but one of incredible extortion and personal gain on the part of Rusesabagina.
In fact Rusesabagina’s reputation as a saviour seems to exist solely outside the country in which he claims to have played a role in saving citizens in danger.
Many in Rwanda consider him an opportunist. He is also perceived as an unjustified critic of a country which he has not visited since his departure in 1996. Moreover, it seems that veridical stories of righteous stand and heroism of people who actually did save lives in Rwanda during the Genocide are ignored in the shadow of Rusesabagina’s media attention.
So why is the Walker Theatre honouring such a man? And what are the repercussions of repeatedly giving Rusesabagina a platform to continually express his defamations? The first question can only be explained by an unintended ignorance or naïve belief (or both) on the Theatre’s behalf.
The second question, it has to be said, has far greater implications that involve a dangerous revisionist history.
In the West, Rusesabagina has been praised for saving over 1,200 lives at the Hotel Mille Collines during the Genocide. The film depicting these events and his book, ‘An Ordinary Man’ describes Rusesabagina as a man who went out of his way to try to save lives.
As a result he is often compared to Oskar Schindler, an ethnic German industrialist who saved the lives of over 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust.
In Rwanda, however, Rusesabagina has a different persona. He is not the hero that Hollywood has constructed. In fact, survivor testimonies have accused him of extorting money from the hotel guests for rooms and food.
What happened at the Hotel Mille Collines during the Genocide is a fascinating story of how 1,200 people – in the heart of a country gripped by genocide – were able to survive. Rusesabagina has depicted himself as the sole reason for why the hotel guests were saved.
However, survivor testimonies hold that the hotel was saved partly by its strategic position as a declared safe haven and later for the exchange of those held hostages inside against war prisoners held in RPF liberated zone.
Furthermore, the hotel hosted news reporters who operated at the hotel and, surprisingly, provided protection for planners of the Genocide who were on the run from the advancing Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA).
In addition, a handful of UN peacekeepers were stationed at the hotel in a deliberate effort to prevent open massacres. In fact, many survivors have told how they witnessed Rusesabagina openly favouring the Genocide perpetrators and coordinators in order to gain political and financial favours from them.
It is not just the historical inaccuracies that anger most Rwandans, but Rusesabagina’s incessant need to taint Rwanda’s current development. When he talks about the current situation in Rwanda, his hatred for Rwandan President Paul Kagame is clear.
He dismisses the political and economic achievements in the country over the last twenty years, and especially since he left Rwanda in the mid-1990s.
His view contradicts and denies the praise given by most who visit Rwanda – including former US Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, religious leader Rick Warren, business leaders such as Sam Walton of Walmart, and philanthropist John Bryant.
Adding to this visceral hatred that Rusesabagina has nurtured against the Rwanda leadership, he has shifted his rhetoric to include outright Genocide denial and outright political opposition.
Is Paul Rusesabagina the hero that Hollywood has portrayed? The answer is clearly no. While pursuing his lucrative and selfish agenda in the hotel, he might have triggered a climate less inclined to hostile and lethal acts as were perpetrated outside in the streets; yet this was not for the altruistic reasons that Rusesabagina would have you believe.
He is a man who acted out of self-interest, self-aggrandization and cheap popularity, which he continues to do today. It is unfortunate that institutions like the Madame Walker Theatre keep providing him the opportunity to do so, despite the clear damage this causes to Genocide victims memory, and survivors frustration.
Jonathan R. Beloff is a PhD Student at School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London; and Brendan Sitters is Graduate of Monash University, Australia.